5 Strategies to Stop the School Lunch Time Crunch

Students eat off of compostable lunch trays at Butler Elementary School in Cottonwood Heights, Utah.
Students eat off of compostable lunch trays at Butler Elementary School in Cottonwood Heights, Utah.
—Kristin Murphy/The Deseret News via AP
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Moving 500 children through the school cafeteria each day requires military planning and precision. But maintaining order and adherence to a tight time clock in the lunchroom is less than optimal for the health and well-being of kids, who find themselves wolfing down all—or too often, part—of their lunch within 10 minutes.

While most schools don’t have the luxury of scheduling more leisurely lunch periods, there are some strategies they can use to make even a 20-minute lunch period run more smoothly, and ideally, give students what they need most: enough time to eat.

1. Grab-n-go

Take a page from the airport vendors and downtown business district cafes to offer grab-and-go options in your school cafeteria. Stock this area with fruits like apples and oranges, milk cartons, and pre-packaged salads with chicken. Students can quickly select what they want, pay, and spend more of their time eating instead of waiting in line to be served.

2. In-classroom dining

Bring lunch into the classroom where students and teachers can eat together in a “family style” setting. For starters, the sometimes unruly commute to the cafeteria is eliminated (one misbehaving student can delay an entire class, according to inside information from my sons’ Maryland elementary school), shaving off precious minutes lost to walking and then waiting in line for food service. In the Houston school district, an experiment with in-classroom dining is giving kids more time to eat and a chance to develop some good social skills as they dine with a smaller group of classmates.

3. Multiple lines

Schools do have the luxury of knowing roughly how many students they have to serve every day, so staffing for that volume should be easy. One of the best ways to manage wait times is to create more than one line for moving students through the food service and payment area more quickly. If schools aren’t doing so already, installing and using automatic payment systems also expedites things.

4. No lunch before 11

Some principals say they can’t avoid early lunch periods when student enrollments are high, cafeterias are small, and instructional time can’t be sacrificed. But feeding students before 11 is setting them up for fatigue and hunger pangs later in the day, and that, of course, can interfere with learning. One workaround for this? #2 on this list: serving lunch in class.

5. Recess first

This can be tricky, especially in large elementary schools where principals must choreograph as many as four or five recess rotations. But experts also say it’s one of the smartest things you can do to optimize lunch time. First, by putting lunch after recess, you eliminate the incentive for kids to rush through the meal or skip certain parts of it so they can get to the playground. It also helps reduce wasted food and ensures students eat more of what’s on their tray or in their lunchbox.

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